“I feel one can say with some conviction that no man should willingly leave his home to fight, wound, maim or kill other men about whom he knows little and whom he certainly does not hate. When all men refuse to commit such follies the foundations of a true civilisation will have only just started to be laid.”
- Sam Sutcliffe, circa 1974 (extracted from War: The Somme, Part Five of this memoir)
Sunday, 12 July 2015
Young Sam meets some Maori Anzacs, lands lookout-tower duty – and conducts careful observation of a local girl…
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All proceeds to British Red Cross
A hundred years ago… in a way the week’s most telling event, the Second Battle Of The Isonzo began July 18-August 3 or possibly 10, according to different sources), a couple of weeks after the first “concluded”. This represented the continuing attempt by the Italian Army to beat Austria-Hungary forces back from a river bank in Slovenia and Italy. Winners largely through overwhelming numbers – 250,000 to 78,000 – in terrible hand-to-hand fighting between two ill-equipped soldieries, the Italians suffered 41,800 casualties, their foes 46,600. However, the victory hardly proved conclusive, being followed by 10 further Battles Of The Isonzo through to November 1917…
While the Western Front moved small but deadly distances to and fro, in Eastern Europe a big Austro-German offensive (July 13 onwards) made advances against the Russian Army across Poland, Belarus, Ukraine and Lithuania.
In Gallipoli, a mainly British attack at Achi Baba Nullah (12, dubbed “Bloody Valley”) took some Turkish trenches – casualties: British 3,100, French 800, Turkish 9,000. A Major D. Yuille, 1/4th Royal Scots Fusiliers wrote later: “Unless one has seen it there is no imagination that can picture a belt of land some 400 yards wide converted into a seething hell of destruction”.
Meanwhile... at Ghajn Tuffieha, on the north-west coast of Malta, the thousand men of the 2/1st City Of London Battalion, Royal Fusiliers, having sweated buckets on an 80°F march to the new camp, found themselves in a paradise of a place. Mostly London poor boys – including my father, Private Sam Sutcliffe, his older brother Ted (both underage volunteers, still 16 and 18 respectively), and their pals from Edmonton – the Battalion had never experienced anything like it. Then a first-night rainstorm knocked most of their tents down… but they soon dried out.
Their underlying phoney-war feelings continued. In Malta since early February, they’d trained endlessly. Sam had become an expert shot and also a specialist Signaller. But, very aware of the incoming Gallipoli wounded and dead (their previous camp being instructively located alongside Pembroke Cemetery), they constantly wondered… what next?
Still, while they could, they enjoyed the “tourist” side of this strange life – and please do consider that many of this working-class generation of men and boys, including my father, would never travel abroad again after WW1. Sam writes:
‘That first night was a bad start at the new camp, but several happy weeks followed. Work hours were now strictly observed so we performed only the lightest duties during the hottest part of the day. The officers’ apparent policy of exhausting the men for the sake of, supposedly, toughening them up had ended and everyone had now come to recognise that the hours of darkness were not necessarily best dedicated to sleep alone. If we trained during the evening and the early part of the night we could, with clear consciences, sleep, doze, float in the sea or loll about in the sun during the day – which we often did for hours on end.’
Then, some fresh company from another new and exotic culture turned up to further enliven the day. And, finally, for Sam came a new duty which almost felt like the real thing – although at first he allowed him to be distracted from matters military… by a girl. He was still a Scout/choirboy virgin adolescent after all, as he recalls:
‘We Signallers did further training, often with Maori pals from the New Zealand (Maori) Pioneer Battalion*, who had lately arrived in Malta. Parties of four or six of us were sent away to defence points around the island for periods of one or two weeks.
Typical of such observation posts was one on a headland by Salina Bay**. A group of Signallers, Maoris and Maltese Army engineers lodged there in a stone tower***. We maintained contact with a section of soldiers camped somewhat inland. If we saw anything suspicious at sea or ashore, we could signal to them, or to Naval Headquarters near Valletta, for search or arrest of the suspects.
At all times, day and night, a Signaller was on duty on top of that tower. One evening, when doing my stint, I relieved the boredom by watching an old man and a young girl working in their very small plantation not far off. A small building – one room or at most two – was their home. It must have been uncomfortably hot inside for, as twilight briefly warned of night’s approach, the girl came out, placed an old pillow on a heap of dried straw just outside the door of the hovel, and lay down.
Earlier, in full daylight, I had observed the poor, old, shapeless, black dress she wore; now it functioned as her nightdress. Our family had known severe hardship but here, on this lovely island, poverty seemed more out of place. Yet I perceived advantages which were hers: she would not have to endure periods of bitterly cold weather and occasional days with no fuel to provide any warmth; if, at times, she and granddad had no money to buy food, they could always find something to eat on their own land – a sugar melon, a few grapes, or a hunk from one of the huge pumpkins growing in the plantation – and, withal, they had the blessed warmth of the sun most days of the year.
If the possibility of sharing her natural couch occurred to me, it must have been immediately rejected. The soiled, probably smelly, old dress, the dirty, bare, horny-soled feet and the easily imagined, unwashed body must have been powerful deterrents, but in any case the principles regarding correct human relationships instilled by dear old Frusher**** still held strong magic for me… And there was the old man to reckon with, even if one’s advances were coupled with the purest motives…
As darkness took over from the bright sun, which sustained the day’s heat until the last moment, I gave my attention to the job in hand.’
* They trained in Egypt, then moved to Malta, says Wikipedia, before fighting at Gallipoli – landing at Anzac Cove, July 3, 1915 – and on the Somme from August 1916; during World War I, 2,227 men served in the Battalion, 336 of them died, and 734 were wounded; in the military, “pioneer” means specialising in engineering and construction – “sapper” is the British Army equivalent.
** Salinas Bay: across from Ghajn Tuffieha on the north-east of the island.
*** The Knights Of Malta, the renowned/notorious Roman Catholic military order founded in 1099; in 1530 King Charles 1 of Spain, but in his role as King of Sicily, “gave” Malta to the Knights when their crusading in the Holy Land petered out; they built many defensive stone towers in the 17th century.
**** Sam’s scoutmaster/choirmaster/vicar and piano teacher too, back home in Edmonton – which added up to his revered mentor regarding life in general.
All the best – FSS
Next week: Night-time alert, the Sergeant sits on a thorn bush and lookout Sam gets shot at for the first time – by Maltese person unknown!